What I say to a close friend is quite different from what I say to a distant acquaintance or to my boss, even if I’m describing the same situation. When I speak to a friend, I will, of course, relate parts of the story that I keep private from the others. More than that, though, my very words will communicate the trust we share and the emotional warmth I feel for her, without those themes having to be spoken about explicitly. In an analogous way, a server at a restaurant can make me feel uncomfortable and communicate his displeasure with me while never straying at all from communication with me that is formally quite polite. These situations remind us of two things.
First, the description of a situation is never automatic–never a matter of simply correlating the correct word with the relevant fact. On the contrary, our descriptions are always interpretive. In other words, the way we choose to talk about something will always reveal something about us–the speakers–by revealing what aspects of the situation we deem relevant.
Second, our words will also always say something about that one to whom we speak. In the way we choose to speak, that is, we “say” who we take the other to be. In my example above, I implicitly tell my friend that she is my friend, even as my words explicitly only describe some event at the office.
Before we are adults, we are children. When we are adults, we can endure the implicit snubs and put-downs, and, indeed, the implicit flattery, that our conversational companions direct at us in the power-plays that typically shape our interpersonal lives. When we are children, however, we have not yet built up the secure sense of self-identity that allows the adult to know who she is despite the images of her that are projected upon her through the speech of others. Indeed, it is precisely through such projections, such implicit portrayals of self-identity, that the child comes to form a sense of who she is in the eyes of others.
We should be very careful in our conversations with our peers to ensure that our implicit communications behind our explicit words are fair and respectful. Even more so, as parents, care-givers, educators and friends, we should be extremely careful of the way that our interactions with children are telling them who they are, whether or not this is the message we intend to be sending.
Our contemporary society encourages us to accept the myth the we are independent, self-contained individuals from start to finish. In fact this interpretation of human nature is not true. Our very sense of “self” is accomplished in and through our language. We are not independently formed minds who simply use an external language as a tool to pass information to other independent minds. On the contrary, we become individuals only in the context of being partners in dialogue.